-- Blind Melon
Portrait of a Passionate Trio
On a fishing trip, or a road journey of any kind, really, three people offers the perfect mix. One to drive, one to handle tunes and navigate, and one to sit in back and pass important items up front when necessary.
Tom Montgomery and John Simms, surveying the
South American goods. The Lake District, Patagonia.
In a boat, the benefits are obvious: somebody rows, the other two fish, and the rotation commences. But even on foot, a trio better covers all bases, with one person fishing the riffle of arrival, one heading upstream, one down. If the recipe isn't immediately obvious, then somebody throws streamers, somebody nymphs, somebody hits the surface. While the camaraderie of a fishing triumvirate might not hold the romantic qualities of individual solitude, or the father-and-son, grandpa-and-grandchild, "Grumpy-Old-Men" idyllic image of partnership, a triad remains the troupe of choice for anglers.
It was May of 1973. Richard Nixon was four months into his second term, the Oakland A's were making their second of three consecutive World Series runs, and Paul Bruun had just accepted a job as editor of the Jackson Hole Guide.
Having moved from Florida, Bruun had a keen interest in boats, and he noticed a man out behind The Guide who seemed always to be messing about with a variety of rubber rafts.
"He wore an old Scottish cap and just looked like a real interesting character," Bruun recalls. "I'd go in early, about six in the morning, and this guy was always out there tinkering around. I knew about bonefish skiffs but I didn't know anything about Salmon River Rafts, sew-in bottoms, that sort of thing. So I start talking to him a little bit and I say to him `do you ever do any fishing?'"
The man stopped, leaned against one of the big rafts, and smiled.
"Do you like to fish?" he said. "We should get together sometime and go. My name's John. John Simms."
Twenty-five years later, Simms and I are sitting in his modest Jackson home, next to the garage where he creates pieces of fine art for a living. A large picture of Bruun hangs on the wall, holding a bright British Columbia steelhead - a rarity for Bruun, he says.
"Paul tried steehead fishing in a number of places over the years," Simms said. "And it never seemed to work. That day was an exception."
Simms and Bruun didn't get to fish together much that first summmer, what with Bruun's new job at the paper and all. "I didn't have time to go to the bathroom," Bruun says of his first year at The Guide. "It was important for me to know more about this town, this state, this part of the country, than anybody I met. And I worked very hard at it."
As for Simms, he spent most of the 70s summers working the whitewater operation he started and ran with Charlie Sands up at Flagg Ranch - and later in the Snake River Canyon - which would eventually become Sands Wild Water River Trips.
During the winter, Simms worked as an avalanche forecaster and patrol at Jackson Hole Ski Resort. As a skier, Simms solidified his reputation eternally by joining Sands for the initial launch into a chute east of Corbet's that would forever after be known only as S&S Couloir. To this day, neither will say who went first.
It was also while performing the duties of a patroller that Simms lost much of his hearing.
"I shot the 75 recoiless [howitzer] 1800 times one winter," Simms said. "And what ear protection we had, the mice had eaten all the foam out of."
Besides skiing, Simms loved fishing. And inventiveness. The combination of which led to the founding of two companies in the late 70s. The first, Snow Research Associates, made avalanche forecasting equipment. The second, JESCO (John Earl Simms Co.) specialized in small fishing items like gravel guards and wrist locks. Through growth, investors, partnerships and the natural evolution of business, the two companies eventually merged and came to be known as Simms/Life Link, now two of the biggest names in the outdoor industry. (Simms himself invented the Life-Link avalanche probe, a ski product now as common in the backcountry as fleece and duct tape.) Simms ultimately sold his interest in the business to partner John Krisik, who later sold the Simms portion to K.C. Walsh. Simms Fishing Products is now located in Bozeman, Montana.
I ask what it feels like to have his name on all those products from a company he's no longer involved with.
"It's fine," he says, and appears to mean it. "I'm just real glad it's successful." So now Simms is a sculptor.
"I never thought I had an ounce of talent," he says of his latest vocation. "Although my mother's an artist, my brother's an artist, and my daughter's an artist. So I figured it must be there somewhere." Throughout all the inventing and business ventures of the 70s, Simms continued to guide, working both on his own and out of the Moose Tackle Shop, one of the first fly shops in the Rockies.
"I always enjoyed it and often felt it was the next best thing to doing it yourself," Simms said of guiding. "Sort of like fishing by proxy. And I kind of got Paul into it after he stopped working at The Guide."
Bruun and Simms eventually shared many a trip together, both working and playing, over the next several years. And in the spring of 1978, as the last few turns were being made at Jackson Hole Ski Resort, Bruun would meet a young ski bum named Tom Montgomery, who had stopped to partake in a casting competition unfolding behind the tram dock. Later that spring, the three of them took the first of what would be many trips together - a five day journey to Ocean Lake and later the Wind River near Thermopolis.
"That's the trip when we all met," said Montgomery. "It started then."
Tom Montgomery is on the phone when I arrive, making travel arrangements for New Zealand or some such exotic locale. My first impression is an unexpected one: He looks like George Stephanopolis. And, like the former Presidential advisor, Montgomery appears much younger than his 45 years. He hangs up the phone and attends to a seemingly routine task that has him surprisingly baffled: removing the shade on his new camera lens. He holds the camera in one hand and the instruction manual in the other, turning his head from side to side.
"Align the red dot on the front of the lens..."
He tells me a story of taking apart an old Mitchell 300 spinning reel as a kid and being unable to put the thing back together again.
"Both Bruun and I are very different from John in that way," he explains. "Neither of us have high competencies mechanically."
"Let's set the record straight," Bruun would tell me later, after hearing the "professional-photographer-can't-remove-his-lens-cap" story. "John is the master at tinkering, no doubt about it. But I'm ahead of Montgomery."
When he finally gets the lens cap off, I ask what relationship he has with some of the other prominant fly-fishing photographers, like Andy Anderson.
"Andy used to call me all the time when he was starting out," Montgomery said. "Now that he's sort of gone racing past the rest of us, I don't know who he calls - maybe the spirit of Ansel Adams." Montgomery's own big break came when he was hired to do the photography for a beautiful 1991 table top book called "The Nature of Flyfishing."
"This is the kind of thing I was shooting then," he says, pointing to a picture from the book. "Old hat, holding a rolled up cigarette - coulda been a joint. I don't really dig all the fashion shit. I mean, if a guy wanted to wear some funky old snowboarding gear, I think that'd be sorta cool."
The photo he points to is of A.J. DeRosa, a legendary guide in his own right who Simms, Bruun and Montgomery all speak highly of.
"Going fishing with A.J. is like winning a trip to Disneyland," Bruun said.
Montgomery graduated from Vermont's Middlebury College and went on to study at Oxford. But don't let the brainy-guy thing mislead you. He can fish. And guide. He has done so in Montana and Wyoming for two decades, and even spent three winters in the Caymans. In fact, he was on his way back to a third year of guiding in Alaska before meeting Brunn and Simms.
"From the beginning, Tom just seemed smarter than a lot of guides," Simms said. "Not that other guides weren't smart. It's just that he always seemed destined for... you know, a little more."
It was Simms whom Montgomery ended up working for soon after they met.
"Paul was my really good friend and I'm sure I fished more with him," Montgomery said. "But I truly did my guiding apprenticeship under John Simms."
I ask what it was like working with him.
"Well, like most guides, John definitely had `his way' of doing things," Montgomery says. "But as time went by, I learned his way and I knew my role, which was to be part of his support team. He was the outfitter or whatever and I was the employee. But he always kindly gave me full pay. He never took a bigger chunk even though they were mostly his clients."
Then, like now, there were several benefits to being a fishing guide, but big financial gain wasn't one of them.
"I remember we'd split the cost of like a $6 bottle of wine because neither of us had any money." Montgomery said. "I think John was driving a Ford Aspen that a client had given him and I was driving a Datsun 510 with a roof rack for my boat. The first four or five years I guided, I didn't even have a trailer."
When he finally did get a trailer, it was to carry his new boat that was sold to him by - who else - Paul Bruun.
"There weren't really a lot of dories on the river yet," Montgomery said. "Simms had a little Sea Nymph john boat and Bruun had recognized the virtue of that even though he owned a Lavro. John and I were of the mind that it was better to sit down and fish than stand up - just a stealthier approach. So Bruun accepted that logic and inventoried Stone Drug (where he was the sporting goods manager at the time) with several of these little john boats.
Bruun persuaded me to buy one and I was nervous because it was $330. I made him throw in the oars and he still says it was the hardest sale he ever made."
Like Montgomery, Bruun is on the phone when I arrive. He's talking to a Gary Wilmot, also known as The Wedge, also known as one of the most hardcore fisherman any of us will ever meet. (When I first met Gary, someone in the room brought up the subject of climbing. I had just finished climbing the Grand Teton and, being over-anxious to share this information, asked Willmot if he'd ever done it. "Why," he asked. "Are there fish up there?")
Stacks of outdoor books are scattered about Bruun's living room, many of which are signed by the author with some lengthy note preceded by "Dear Paul,."
Bruun is one of those people you see around town always engaged in conversation. He knows everybody. And he talks to them all.
"Paul cultivates friends very easily," Simms said. "We could go fishing anywhere in the world and we'd run into somebody he knew. Or somebody who knew somebody he knew. We'd get to talking to a couple from some small town in Texas and he'd know the mayor or something."
This ability to talk and to make friends translated into an early career in politics, when he served rare double duty as both a lift op and a city councilman.
"I was the liftee captain at Apres Vous and I'd have the Ski Corps president come up and talk with me at lunch," Bruun said. "My coworkers couldn't believe it."
While Paul's listening ability and memory is outstanding, it is the telling of stories where he really shines. But it can take a while.
"I'm a GPS-like story teller," he explains in the middle of one which has wandered considerably off-track. "I never leave them completely, I just circumnavigate them for a while."
Like Simms and Montgomery, Bruun has a variety of talents. But more than cooking, more than hunting, more than photography or writing, Paul is a fisherman. Not just a fly-fisherman, mind you. A fisherman. "Paul likes to spin cast," Simms said matter-of-factly. "And he's very good."
"Good" isn't the word Montgomery chooses to describe Bruun's fishing ability.
"I know `genious' may seem like a ridiculous term to use when talking about fishing," Montgomery says. "But it fits with Bruun."
Like any three friends, there were moments of competitiveness, though it's tough getting any of them to admit to it.
"There were days I wanted to do what they could do," Montgomery said. "I didn't try to trounce them all the time but I wanted to have my innings too" Did you?
"Well, Paul was fairly new to Jackson as well so I could sometimes outfish him," Montgomery said. "But with Simms it was tough. He would dissapear down some channel that I'd still be looking for five years later."
On the Road Again
Ten years after the Ocean Lake trip, Bruun, Simms and Montgomery head out again, this time to Argentina. There were many trips in between, of course, and there've been many since. But it's apparent from the stories that this was a special journey.
"We had a really good time in Buenes Aires," Simms said of their three-week South American odyssy.
"But I think it was a little hard on Tom because he was the only one of us who spoke any Spanish at all.
So he was put in the position of being the responsible party and we had some hilarious times." When asked of the Argentina trip, Montgomery simply gives the response of many a reminiscent angler:
"I think it's time we go back."